by Jim Barta
You arrive at your favorite pike-infested waters and fumble excitedly through your tackle, so keyed up to catch northerns that every minute spent assembling and rigging rods seems like a fruitless hour. Time’s a wasting and the pike are waiting.
Finally, it’s time and prime time at that. It’s spring — the season when shallow bays will concentrate the largest pike on the river or lake!
You cast everything you have, but after a few hours of nonstop tossing of spoons or spinners, you have only a few small pike to show for your efforts. Something’s wrong! Catching pike is supposed to be a given, or at least, easier than this. What’s up?
Could be a cold front moved in the night before causing the northerns to have a serious case of lockjaw. Perhaps previous fishing pressure has these fish a bit more educated to your tactics than you expected. Maybe the big-fish population is overrated and catching that trophy pike is going to be more difficult than you thought.
Well, before you sit down, stop looking for excuses and consider adapting to the conditions you’re presented with. First of all, if your angling efforts are concentrated mainly in back bays during the spring, odds are that your location isn’t the problem. Spring is an ideal time to work the warming, shallow waters of any lake or river.
During the warm summer season, small pike — those under 30 inches — prefer water in the 67- to 72-degree range, while bigger northerns favor cooler temperatures of 50 to 55 degrees. In the spring, however, large females begin searching out warming back bays immediately after ice-out to begin the process of spawning. Even after depositing their eggs, these large pike will often linger in these waters to regain their strength after the rigors associated with nature’s call to reproduce. These areas become prime feeding grounds.
The extent to which pike move will often be dictated by the presence of cover such as aquatic vegetation. Not surprisingly, pike activity will also be influenced by the habitat used by prey species. Baitfish that are important to pike — such as suckers, fathead minnows and perch — are also seeking the same shallows to spawn during the spring. Sheer numbers of these prey species, vying for the same spawning habitat, allow northern pike to fatten up on them while leaving enough brood stock for future generations.
Besides shallow-water weedbeds, if the bay you’ve been working also offers points, channel edges or other defined objects of structure that pike can relate to, your problem of not catching fish isn’t your location. You’ve already found “pike heaven.” The lack of success may be associated with other factors.
Your choice of baits, lures and presentations will all affect success rates, even in the best of locations. For starters, if northern pike aren’t showing an interest in standard spoons or spinners, chances are the problem is a “presentation thing.” Speed may not be the key element to triggering strikes on this particular day. In such cases, changes will be required, not only in presentation, but in the offering itself.
On the average, dead bait probably accounts for more large pike in North America than any other bait or lure. Dead bait presentations are especially productive in the spring when large females are looking to ingest as much food as possible without expending a lot of energy. Instead of having to chase a fast-moving lure, your offering appears to be an easy meal to the pike and is often hard to pass up. Forage that dies in the area rests on the bottom and can provide a food source when pike aren’t aggressively seeking live targets.
Pike are commonly thought of as being accomplished predators — bullies of the water — taking on anything that moves. But pike commonly eat dead minnows, suckers, smelt, alewives or other small game fish. Trophy-size northerns often scavenge dead fish off the bottom, acting more like a prominent scavenger than an accomplished predator. I’ve discovered this trait to continue well into summer in water that remains cold enough to prevent the dead fish from decomposing.
Now, it’s important that I don’t create any misconceptions about northerns. They may eagerly accept an easy meal of dead bait, but they can also display a fierce disposition to anything that invades their territory.
On several occasions, I’ve had a northern pike strike my lure only to discover that the fish I was battling was the same pike my boat partner was already fighting. The pike’s voracious appetite or just plain mean disposition caused it to strike a lure despite the fact that it was already engaged in battle.
A number of lures have been designed to trigger the pike’s naturally bad attitude. Many of these lures have been around for years, while other newcomers are quickly gaining the respect of the pike-fishing community for their success. And then there are those lures that are simply nothing more than remakes of the old standbys used by our grandfathers that are being reintroduced to a new generation of anglers.
Wobbling spoons like Dardevles, Blue Fox Aqua Spoons and Len Thompsons are the bread-and-butter lures of spring pike fishing. These 3- to 4-inch-long wide-bodied spoons exhibit a slow lazy-like wobble that will often interest pike that are in a moderate to aggressive mood. Typically, the larger 5- to 6- inch lures are best left to the salmon crowd.
When using spoons in the spring, cast them into the shallows, retrieving them slowly with an occasional pause-pop-flutter action to trigger any following pike. Then, hang on tight!
Red-and-white spoons with a silver metallic back or a yellow five-of- diamonds pattern have, without a doubt, been the top pike-catching spoons during the spring than all other combinations combined. If these spoons have a flaw, it would be their ability to catch weeds as quickly as pike. Typically, each comes standard with a large treble hook dangling from it and, when targeting northern pike that are holding in shallow weeds, these hooks can foul quickly.
Straight-shaft-spinners — such as the Panther Martin, Blue Fox or Mepps — are also good lures for trophy northerns. The spinning action of these lures causes a slight lifting action, which permits a slower retrieve and often an enticing action. That’s not to say they can’t be worked rapidly. The versatility of in-line spinners allows anglers to try different presentations while searching for the right speed for triggering strikes.
Like spoons, a typical spinner is also rigged with treble hooks
that can hang in thick weeds; however, the lure presents an even more serious problem. The flat, straight-running retrieve characterized by spinners often permits northern pike to ingest the lure deep into its throat, causing potential harm to fish that are to be released. As the northern trails the spinner, it is able to home in on it such that when the strike does occur, the spinner is embedded well within the tooth-laden mouth. Rarely does a pike caught on a spinner pull free.
Here is where a good pair of needle-nose pliers comes in handy. Not only does the angler need to fear the hundreds of teeth lining the interior of the pike’s mouth, but also the sharp hooks on the spinner. As any veteran of northern pike waters can attest, the thrashing of a pike can cause a lure’s hooks to bury themselves into an unsuspecting hand. Continued thrashing can have serious consequences.
In weedy conditions, large spinnerbaits normally used by bass anglers can be an effective tool. The single hook is a welcome feature when you plan to release the majority of your fish; however, the number of hookups may be reduced. When pike activity is high on spinnerbaits, a good tip is to add a trailer hook. Many of the strikes that would have normally been missed will now put that trophy in the boat. Spinnerbaits can be good lures to use but normally don’t match the attraction of spoons or in-line spinners.
If I had to pick a favorite method of catching fish, it would certainly be with the use of topwater baits. There’s just something exhilarating about watching as the surface of the water explodes when a pike attacks my offering. Buzzbaits and other similar topwater lures only rate an occasional use for northerns. However, when pike are willing to feed off the surface, there is a great time to be had.
During a spring trip to a remote Canadian lake several years ago, my fishing partners and I spent an entire day casting spoons without much success. Then as the day wore on and the number of untried lures in my tackle box dwindled, I decided to try tossing a buzzbait over the top of some weeds and heavy log structure. Seconds after my first cast hit the water, the surface exploded as the largest northern of the day inhaled my lure.
That particular lure was shaped like a dozen others I had in my box with one important exception. This one had a large buzzbait-type spinner on the front that trashed the water like a fleeing duckling. I had purchased a few of them before we flew into the lake and suddenly they became real expensive. Trading them for cooking and dish-washing duties made the trip seem a lot more enjoyable. I can only hope that one of my fishing partners doesn’t have the only good lure on our next trip. I’m likely to return home with dishpan hands.
As good as buzzbait lures can be, they’re normally not the best choice for topwater success. Slow-swimming floating minnow baits — like large Rapalas or Thundersticks — are a better choice during the spring since aggressive pike in shallow water are more likely to take a slow-moving or motionless bait off the surface.
Cast the lure over or near a weedbed and allow it to sit motionless for a moment. Begin taunting nearby northerns by twitching the lure so it imitates a crippled minnow. After a movement or two, begin a series of short jerks allowing the lure to nose-dive a few inches below the surface and then float back up. If this hasn’t enticed a strike, begin twitching the lure a bit faster as if it were a minnow regaining a sense of normalcy and beginning to swim off. Any pike worthy of its reputation should immediately attack the apparent easy meal. If not, repeat the process with a cast in another direction.
While the preceding tactics and tools illustrate the vast majority of presentations used for taking shallow-water pike in the spring, there are a few alternatives that can be productive for those times when northerns are reluctant to take repeatedly seen presentations.
Finesse tactics are rarely thought of in terms of pike fishing. Hefty spinning or casting tackle can be used for tempting reluctant pike; however, their main drawback is the sufficient weight they carry for casting. This weight offers anglers the ability to reach out for fish that haven’t been spooked by the boat, but negates any chance for a silent entry into the water. With a little creativity, there are several choices that anglers can use.
Slug-Go-style minnow bodies offer alternatives for fishing within the top 3 feet of the water column. These lures are sufficiently weedless when worked in and around even the thickest weedbeds and can be extremely effective for taking northern pike. Near-weightless when rigged with a single hook, an 8-inch Slug-Go can be cast to the spookiest of fish. The entry into the water is nearly silent, while it seems to slither from side to side, drawing the attention of hungry predators below. A twitch of the rod tip sends it into a glide that can be in any direction — up, down, sideways — you never know. Neither do the pike!
For peak results while working cold water in the spring, it’s best to keep the lure’s action subtle with several long pauses between twitches. Give the pike plenty of time to approach, examine the bait and decide when to attack. Pausing may also give you time to see the fish and react to what it’s doing.
Regardless of what type of lure you’re using, all casts should enter the water beyond the pike’s position. Finesse tactics are no exception. Cast past the fish and wait long enough for the ripples to settle. Point the rod tip toward the water and simply begin a short twitching action, reeling up all the slack while anticipating a strike. When the upper portion of the water column is to be covered, the weight of the hook and leader should be sufficient to make the bait drift downwards fast enough. To increase the downward fall, simply add a split shot or two ahead of the lure, being careful not to pinch and weaken the line.
Black-and-silver or blue-and-silver are probably the most popular colors, though most anything can produce. When using a Slug-Go or similar lure, be sure that the hook has a sufficiently large enough gap to accommodate the thick plastic body.
If asked to list the best and most popular methods of taking northern pike, most anglers probably wouldn’t even include fly-fishing. I know, because before trying it, I wouldn’t have. But taking a trophy-class northern pike — or any pike at all — on a fly rod can be one of the greatest experiences an angler can have. These fish know how to fight, and when tested on an 8- or 9-foot 8-weight fly rod, they can put all your angling skills to the test.
Using a fly rod for pike isn’t for the novice angler. Tackling one of our best fighting game fish by anyone except a veteran can leave tackle twisted, tangled and broken.
Fly-fishing excels in those conditions when you cast traditional lures at pike and they remain uninterested. They ignore your efforts until you harass them to a point where they’re finally chased off. Flies settle on the water with barely a ripple and rarely spook pike holding in even the shallowest water. If the water is calm enough to spot the fish and allow you to cast properly, you can lay a near-weightless fly within a few feet of the pike an
d work it to within inches of their face. A pause of the offering causes the fly to hang there, neither rising or falling, much like a live minnow.
When the water is a bit deeper, say 4 or 5 feet, and the fish are a bit spooked or unresponsive to shallow flies, it may be necessary to sink to their level. Switch to weighted streamers to reach a little deeper. Use the same technique of twitch-and-pause here as well. The results can be impressive.